Do-It-Yourself Marketing Research
An Op-Ed from the Atlanta Business Chronicle
Conducting marketing research is always important for small businesses, even though most do not do much research. It takes time and costs money, two important constraints for many companies. However, more information is available via the Internet than ever before, and it is easier to conduct marketing research at a reasonable cost today.
Marketing research can be defined as gathering information and asking questions to help businesses make better decisions. Many view it as nice to do but not necessary. Done correctly, however, marketing research can be a roadmap to increased success and can reduce a company’s risk of making bad decisions.
Seeing your product or service through customers’ eyes can help you improve what you are doing and can help identify new opportunities. Marketing research can tell you who your customers are and whether or not you are meeting their needs and expectations. It can identify the factors used in considering purchasing your products vs. your competitors’ products. The research can find out what customers like about your products and what they dislike about them. The answers to these questions can give a company a major competitive advantage in a competitive market.
The starting point for any marketing research is to determine what is already known. Secondary research, research conducted for another purpose that can provide valuable insights, should be addressed first. Examples of secondary research include U.S. Census Bureau data, industry reports done by trade associations and industry trade publications, and consumer expenditure data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Internal data also can be a good source of knowledge about the market and its behavior. For example, sales data can be very informative, as can statistics from your website. Web analytics (e.g., Google’s suite of tools) can identify where leads are coming from, from which pages on the website people are exiting, etc.
Often good secondary data is not available or is out of date, so primary research must be conducted. Traditional methods include focus groups and telephone surveys, both of which are expensive to conduct. Fortunately, today there are ways to do online surveys very inexpensively, courtesy of tools such as Survey Monkey and Zoomerang.
The key to accurate, actionable research is to ask the right questions in the right way to the right people. This is not easy. Perhaps the most important step is the first one, clearly defining the objectives of the research. What decisions will the research inform? How will the results be used? What do we need to know and from whom? If this stage of the research is not done well, there is a high risk that the results will not be helpful, and the company may in fact be worse off than if they hadn’t done any research.
A questionnaire is the vehicle for translating the marketing research objectives into specific questions. An effective questionnaire is clear and concise, ideally taking about 5 (no more than 10) minutes to complete. The shorter the questionnaire, the better the response rate. The sequence must be unbiased, so general questions typically come at the beginning, followed by more specific ones. A careful pretest can ensure that respondents do not have trouble understanding the questions and that the flow works well.
It is important that questions be specific — ask about the past 30 days or the past 6 months if asking about something that is time bound. Make sure that the response options cover the entire range of possible responses. Understand the difference between attitude questions (how the respondents think about something) and behavior questions (how they actually behave with respect to the product or service).
Planning ahead is critical; understanding how the results will be used needs to be carefully studied. I like to say that if you want to know the answer to a question, you have to ask it. Sales people and other customer-facing employees can often be a great source of hypotheses about customers that can be tested via the survey.
There are many different kinds of issues studied via questionnaire, each requiring different ways to word the questions. For example, attitude questions usually provide statements (“X company cares about its customers”) with the response alternatives being the degree of agreement with the statement (e.g., strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, or strongly disagree). Perceptions of a product’s or service’s attributes are typically measured on a rating scale (e.g., excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor). The likelihood of buying a new product or service is usually measured on a purchase intention scale (e.g., definitely would buy it, probably would buy, might or might not buy it, probably would not buy it, or definitely would not buy it).
The type and number of people you include in the study (the sample) are even more important than the questionnaire. If you end up with responses from an unrepresentative sample you may end up with data that is misleading or just wrong. Sometimes this is the hardest part of designing the survey, and it is critical to get it right.
Designing reliable and valid marketing research is both an art and a science. Having people in-house who can execute good surveys is a big plus for a business. If they are not available, it would be better to outsource this task. However, you can’t outsource the setting of objectives and identification of what decisions will be made and how the research will inform these decisions. Done well, marketing research can greatly enhance your company’s success.
Ken Bernhardt is Regents Professor of Marketing Emeritus at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business and a marketing consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.